EXCL: Interview with 1408’s Mikael Håfström


On the challenges of adapting Stephen King

When it comes to Stephen King film adaptations, there’s the good (“The Shawshank Redemption”), the bad (“Dreamcatcher”) and the downright inept ‘n ugly (“The Mangler”). It’s a game of hit or miss, as Swedish director Mikael HÃ¥fström (“Derailed”) was fully aware going into Dimension Films’ 1408. Arguably, it can be said that many of the big screen King misfires putrefy at their core due to an anemic script or because the source material didn’t lend itself to adaptation. “1408” (printed in the “Everything’s Eventual” collection) – the story of Mike Enslin, a writer testing his wits against a haunted New York City hotel room – is one of King’s strongest works, practically bleeding for cinematic attention. For assistance, HÃ¥fström brought in the crackerjack writing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Ed Wood”). Add the perfect, caustic “everyman” John Cusack to the mix, couple him with Samuel L. Jackson for some scenes of crackling verbal sparring, and what you’ve got is Stephen King done right.

HÃ¥fström rings Shock all the way from London, where he lensed most of the film’s interior action. Second unit picked up shots of New York City and Los Angeles beachside exteriors. The press notes for “1408” quote Cusack as saying the Swedish are in touch with their “inner gloom,” but HÃ¥fström is actually rather cheerful. This is compounded by the fact that it sounds as if he’s standing in the center of birthday party and he’s the piñata. HÃ¥fström is enjoying a few weeks off, energizing himself for the forthcoming press spectacle that will precede the release of “1408” (opening June 22nd). “I’m reading scripts again,” he says over the howls of sugar-charged children erupting behind him. “You try to read as much as possible and you want something to grab you.” Anything of the horror variety, perhaps? Unlike Enslin of “1408,” he wants to avoid being pigeon-holed. “I’m, you know, a funny guy,” he laughs. “I can see myself doing a comedy or a love story.” Until then, or until the “1408” hype subsides, he may have to get used to being “the guy who did the new King film.”

ShockTillYouDrop.com: Every horror fan remembers their first experience with Stephen King since he has become such an indelible mainstay in the genre – what’s yours?

Mikael HÃ¥fström: I saw Brian DePalma’s “Carrie” when I was maybe a little bit too young. It left an impression on me. I didn’t know much about Stephen King or Brian at the time but I really liked the film a lot and sort’ve became obsessed by it. After that, I started reading King. I haven’t read all of his works but I read a lot of his stuff when I was a teen. Later, I’ve been mainly reading his short stories. I think he’s a genius of short stories which are hard to pull off. That’s where he makes his best work and “1408” is one of those stories he masters so well. Obviously I’ve seen a lot of films made of his works. Some good ones, some not so good ones.

Shock: You’re working from a novella, but as King is prone to do, he loads it up on rich details, so fleshing it out into a feature must not have been that much of a task…

HÃ¥fström: He does create great characters. If you read “1408” you get a lot of info in very few pages about Michael Enslin that we have to deal with. I think that’s one of [King’s] strong points, he’s great at creating great characters with a lot of depth and in just a few words you feel like you know this guy. You know about his past and so on. The story starts with Olin in that meeting and their discussion about Enslin’s books – we learn about that guy his character issues. That was a strong starting point for us. Obviously, we had to broaden out the story a bit, I feel we were very true to the heart and soul of King even if we brought in other story elements we needed.

Shock: Take me through its development genesis, because I see Matt Greenberg (“Masters of Horror: Fair Haired Child”) is credited as writing the script next to Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. And Eli Roth was on board before you. [Editor’s Note: Read up on that here.]

HÃ¥fström: When I came in there was a first draft of the script written by Matt Greenberg and he did a really good job fleshing out the short story, but he was occupied by other things [to do rewrites]. So, one of the first things I did with producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura is to find new writers. I luckily wound up with Scott and Larry who I had been big fans of before. We asked them if they wanted to take the script to the next step. There was a first draft and no cast was attached so I started from the beginning which was good ’cause that’s why I wanted to work.

Shock: I think you found a perfect fit of casting Cusack as the cynical Enslin.

HÃ¥fström: It was extremely important to find the right guy to portray him. It’s hard to imagine for me any other actor in his age group to pull the role off better than him. I think he was drawn to the script, it’s sort of a challenge to spend so much time in the room alone. But he also saw the character and the possibilities he could do something interesting with. That was the first important step. I think compared to other works of King, as a story, it gives a lot of freedom for filmmakers to interpret it and also make it personal in that film. I think “1408” is a subjective trip. If you go into that room you’d have your own specific adventure and I would have mine. That’s what I’d like the audience to think about. That’s what made it interesting.

Shock: Touching on that solitude Cusack experiences in the room before it descends into a horror show, did you and he work out things on-the-fly? Such as busy work he’d be doing while “waiting,” so to speak.

HÃ¥fström: I think we had to work in that way. A big chunk of the film finds Enslin alone and we constantly had to make it interesting. Make him interesting. I really love the parts when nothing is happening when he’s just sifting about. When he finds the chocolate on his pillow and the radio goes off by itself, he gets excited because something is going on. John and I started every morning with specific scenes to do but we really threw everything overboard to find another way to go. I started with John and my director of photography [Benoit Delhomme] and we’d go to a corner of the room and play out the scene and see where it took us. John is an actor who likes to works that way. He’s a collaborative actor, it was a tough movie to do but an interesting process for this reason.

Shock: This is your first FX film. Were the scenes showcasing the deluge of water and various spookies Enslin suffers a welcome relief next to the monotony of having nothing happen?

HÃ¥fström: When you do big scenes with a lot of action, it’s easy because everything is planned and you know exactly what’s going to occur. We had to be careful to build the adventure in the room, the psychology of the room and how Enslin responds to what happens. It was challenging to build it in a good way and have it make sense for the character and for the audience and make it entertaining. The whole thing was a learning process. I really didn’t want this too look like an FX film. We couldn’t find any real ghosts so we had to manufacture some. [laughs] A lot of the FX are practical that we created in the room except for things like what you see outside of the window and the ghosts. We’ve got the big water scene when the whole room is filled with water. But it was fun because we spent a lot of time with John in that room so it was refreshing to get outside and do something different with action and people swimming around. Actors like that physicality. I think after a few weeks we were going insane in that room.

Shock: Tell us a bit about casting Samuel L. Jackson as the Dolphin Hotel manager, Olin.

HÃ¥fström: If you read “1408” Olin is described as a middle-aged white man with a European air about him. You can say a lot of things about Sam Jackson but those are not any of them. [laughs] It was [Dimension Film’s] Bob Weinstein who called me up one day and said, “What do you think of Sam Jackson?” I’ve always been a big fan of Sam’s but I think my response was a little bit conservative – the idea was so far from the Olin in the text. What I decided is the film’s opening nine-minute scene between Olin and Enslin was really important and I saw the potential in Sam. John is a strong guy, a strong character with a lot of charisma and I need an Olin to stand up to him. The scene has an infinite power struggle and it’s an interesting scene. When we talked to Sam, it was a small part but he was interested in doing it. I had a very hard time saying no to Sam at that point. There are a lot of good actors who are not right for certain parts but I saw potential in him to have fun with John and they’ve never worked together.

Shock: Through the production did you ever connect with Stephen King?

HÃ¥fström: I haven’t met Stephen, but I talked to him on the phone and that was really cool. He’s one of these guys you have so much respect for and he was a lovely man, very respectful. We talked a bit about the short story and he didn’t give any personal views about how it should be done. He left that to me and was very friendly and wished me good luck basically. I know he’s seen the film and was really happy about it so that was important to me.

Shock: I’ve seen the film twice now, a rough version and its final cut, and already I’m beginning to see publicity stills leak out featuring scenes not in the film. There’s one of Mary McCormack knocking on the door of “1408.” Was this taken solely for publicity or is it a deleted scene?

HÃ¥fström: That’s a sequence that belongs to the later part of the film that we agreed to take out early on. There’s a lot of scenes cut and that was one of those moments that we felt didn’t bring anything to that section. I’d love to put it in the deleted scenes on the DVD.

Shock: This is the second feature you’ve done for the Weinstein brothers. You’ve obviously had nothing but good experiences with them to continue your working relationship.

HÃ¥fström: There are a lot of stories out there about them, but I can’t tell you any horror stories. I worked with Bob Weinstein on “1408” and I worked with Harvey before [on “Derailed”]. I think Bob is extremely good at pushing you to do your best. He was very respectful to me as a director and he let me do the film I wanted to do. He put up a lot of money and he had ideas to talk about. But we never ended up in a crisis situation. He’s the first one to say, “We tried it, that was wrong, let’s go with your idea.” He’s a great audience.

Shock: Have any American production companies expressed interest in remaking your Swedish thrillers like “The Drowning Ghost” or “Evil”?

HÃ¥fström: There has been interest in the rights for “Evil.” [The action/comedy] “Kopps” has been sold. Someone had bought the remake rights to “Drowning Ghost” but I would never remake a film that I did. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than to remake your own film. If someone else wants to, go ahead. Americans buy a lot of remake rights to European films and a few of them see the day of light.

Shock: How is doing something like “1408” different than working on homegrown productions like “Drowning Ghost?”

HÃ¥fström: I come from a small country with a small film industry and obviously it’s a more intimate situation when you’re doing a film up there. You have a producer, a couple of actors and few people in the crew which is good and bad. The money situation is so different. “1408” is my second English language film. “Derailed” was a good intro to Hollywood filmmaking and I had all of that with me when I made “1408.” But you have to learn how the studio system works and all of the people who want to have input. I felt I had more experience on “1408.”

Source: Ryan Rotten